It’s Not A Hobby

Why I make pictures.

I’ve been making pictures longer than just about anything else.   I started drawing before I could read or write.   I could spend hours at the dining room table, with a pile of scrap paper and a box of crayons, laboring to render a cat, a daffodil, a tree, a horse, a Peruvian woman in a derby hat and a beautiful, multicolored, woven skirt that I found in a National Geographic magazine.   It was a memorable and stellar day when my dad brought home a box of 64 Crayolas, with the built-in crayon sharpener.   Some of the first words I learned to read were the names of colors: burnt umber, periwinkle, magenta.   They were my magic words, my incantations.

By the time I started grade school, I had also started a self-imposed course of serious draftmanship. It was no longer enough to put colors on the paper.   I was after accuracy, shading, realism.   My parents didn’t bother buying me coloring books.   That wasn’t art.   Instead, they bought me books about drawing techniques.   I felt triumphant when, at age six, I could render a rose, just after it was beginning to unfurl, the center petals coiled like a fountain, the outer petals curling out like waves breaking, the stem with its spikey thorns, the leaves with their serrated edges.   It was an homage to the magic of the universe.

I drew and painted and collaged and quilted and embroidered and etched my way through school.   I entered school art shows and won awards.   After high school, I wanted to go to art school.   But art, I had been advised, was not generally a practical way to make a living.   I went anyway, after I left home, taking evening studio classes at the Massachusetts College of Art, while I worked during the day as an office manager for three computer engineers who worked for a semiconductor manufacturer.   I would drag my half-finished canvases to work, hang them up behind my desk during the day, then haul them to class at night.   My bemused colleagues began to look forward to seeing my homework.

Work, paying the bills, family emergencies, even romance and heartache, all the usual vicissitudes of life often halted my picture-making for months at a time.   But somehow I would find my way back to it.   I needed to.   Making art was my psychotherapy, my soul, my church, my communion with the world, my gratitude for life itself, my expression of joy and longing and wonder.   My father took photographs.   He, like me, had a day job, but in the evening and on weekends, he would spend hours in his darkroom while I was growing up, often enlisting my assistance, developing rolls of film and churning out print after print.   He liked the chemistry, the mess, the technical aspects of using the camera as a machine, the science of the enlarger.   Mostly, he took snapshots of family events, or technical photos of electronic components that he would sell to trade magazines.   Then, unexpectedly, when I was 31, he died.   And I inherited his cameras.

Perhaps because my dad was more of a photo-journalist, not so much trying to make art as he was simply trying to record events, it would be several years after his death before I considered using one of his cameras as another medium for making pictures, another box of crayons for rendering my version of the world.   But finally, I took one of his best 35mm film cameras on a trip to southern France.   And I experienced an epiphany.   I discovered that my way of seeing and interpreting the world could indeed be applied to a viewfinder.

I remember, in particular, wandering around by myself on a lustrous May day in Pézenas, the town along the Hérault river where Molière brought his troupe, “l’Illustre Théâtre” when he left Paris.   I was reveling in the fantastic 17th century architecture, the small alleys, the bougainvillea dripping down balconies and clinging to walls of old stone.   And I kept running into another picture-maker, a man who worked as a professional photographer in New York, but was born in southern France, who was framing the same shots that I was.   He had a much better camera than I, of course, as well as an assistant who was loaded down with bags of lenses and film.   But we were seeing the same play of light and shadow and color.   We would part for a while, then once again find each other, attracted inexorably to the same scenes.   We exchanged a few bits of conversation, but mostly we would smile and nod, acknowledging our shared vision.   I felt like I had been welcomed to a secret club.   Those photos would end up comprising my first art exhibit as a photographer.

Eventually, I went digital.   Having grown up with the mess, the smells, and the imprecise hazards of darkroom photography, I had no sentimental attachment to film.   With some trepidation, I upgraded my Photoshop Elements software to the full version of Photoshop.   Photoshop was like an electronic box of 64 Crayolas.   At first it was intimidating, but I discovered that the best way to figure out how to use it was to recapture my inner six-year-old and just play.   For hours.   I spent entire weekends snapping everything with my digital camera, then trying out every tool, every filter, every layer modifier I could find in Photoshop. I right-clicked and discovered new complexities.   I bought a graphics tablet. I bought Illustrator, and went to RISD, and started taking art classes after work again.   I joined an art association.   I started submitting photos and finally began to get them accepted in juried shows. I was awarded Artist Member status in two art associations.   I learned how to make my own website. I learned how to write html code. I became a full-fledged art geek.   If it weren’t for making pictures, I might never have started this blog.   And even if I had, it wouldn’t look the way it does if it weren’t for making pictures.

It still urks me when someone remarks that making art is a good ‘hobby.’   Generally, I don’t bother to correct them anymore.   It’s never the people who know what it means to feel compelled to write, to draw, to quilt, to sing, to play an instrument, to dance, to plant a garden, to work with their head and hands in order to reach inside themselves and share their passion, who make such remarks.   Even when I was too fatigued or sore or broke to do long photo shoots during and after cancer treatment, I still made and shared my pictures or my writing or shared in appreciating the creative passions of others.   However ambivalent I feel about using the word ‘survivor’ to describe myself or anyone else who endures cancer and cancer treatment, there is one context in which the word applies.   And that has to do with the survival of who I am and how I make sense of the world.   I’ve spent many months since being diagnosed feeling loss, feeling lost, wondering who I was, unsure how or if I would ever fully get back to parts of myself.   The long journey back to making art has ultimately been far more important, more crucial, than negotiating the shoals of cancer.   It has represented my true recovery.

However huge and overwhelming cancer is, however much it threatens to take over our lives and our psyches, it is not who we are or even why we are.   We are not our disease.   We never were.   That’s not what makes our lives and our presence in the world meaningful.

I’ll never forget The Carcinista’s profound post, Taking the Reins, when she articulated her decision to stop cancer treatment.   “I want to go out in charge of my life, with a little dignity left.   Blackmailing friends into coming to visit by making them bring offerings of Starbucks Chai Latte.   Being able to sit at the dinner table and make my kids laugh […] Turns out what’s best for them is to have their mom AROUND and PARTICIPATING…”

So, I am participating.   And relieved.   Because the part of myself that has enabled me to participate more deeply and passionately and generously with the world has survived.   And with it, I can find my way to the light.

Please click on the post title or the comment link below to post a response.

This entry was written by Kathi, posted on Tuesday, June 07, 2011 at 01:06 am, filed under Art & Music, Attitude, Making A Difference, Survivorship and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

13 Responses to “It’s Not A Hobby”

  1. One big, Yaaaaay for you. I’m glad you found your way back because we get to look at your beautiful work You are so right. We are more than this freaking disease. I feel that way about writing. I had lost it for a while, but it came bursting back like a flood unleashed and I had to put pen to paper. Keep going, Kathi!

  2. Kathi,

    I love, love, love this posting, and your work is beautiful indeed!! I also like your definition of survivor. 🙂

    Besides being a writer, I’ve also been drawn to art. I mainly oil paint and sketch. Hearing from other artists such as you is inspiring!

  3. I agree 100%. Cancer is just a thing. It does not become the person. You simply have to look at it for what it is and then focus on the positive things that are all around you. Sarah, The Carcinista, fully believed in being positive – no matter how hard things got. This was one of the reasons that she did so well, for so long. It was also the reason she was able to accept her fate with grace.

    Thank you for the lovely story about your art and experiences in making it.

  4. Oh, Ed, I’m so touched you responded to this post. Sarah will inspire so many of us for a long, long time. I love her use of the word ‘participate.’ Yes, that’s what we all need to do in life, no matter what is going on — we need to participate in it. Hugs to you and the boys.

    And thanks, Beth & Stacey. I’ve always felt lucky that I had something to be passionate about. If we can hold onto our passions, then we have truly survived.

  5. Kathi, Every time I visit I am blown away. You are a wonderful writer. I hope that some day you will be able to get through the fatigue and put it all together in a book. I love how you share bits of your life, your stories of your parents, travels, thoughts.

    Sorry I have been such a bad friend and haven’t visited here more often. I need to update my links to your site. Yep…I still have your old one.

    Hugs, kisses and lots of dark chocolate.

  6. Oh, Joni, you are NOT a bad friend!! You’re a busy friend, and I’ve been just as neglectful, but still think of you often. xxoo

  7. Ohhhhh KAK!!! You are a woman of many talents.

    I’m one of your admirers:) I have a beautiful card from you that I’m able to enjoy every single day……I’ll treasure it forever!! And who can EVER forget how you were able to make our Sharon the captain of The Swan……LOLOL. Love you sistah-friend!!

  8. Lovely! Lantern is still my favorite!!! Love the sense of space.

  9. Those pictures are amazing .. like you said in your blog .. it takes time and experience to capture the ecsence…

    Sarah M

  10. Kathi,
    What a beautiful post. I’m sorry you lost your father when you were both still quite young. Art is your psychotherapy, I love that. Writing is that for me. Writing is how I have coped with cancer. Writing for me represents recovery, just as you said. It must be nice for you to have so many art venues to tap into. I’m a bit envious of that! It was wonderful to read this post and get a bit of a glimpse into the soul of an artist! Thank you.

  11. Kathi, your photos and writing speak volumes on who you really are: a stunning and talented lady. I’m so glad you made the long journey home to your artist world. I don’t know how people can call art a good hobby, except that they don’t understand the heart and soul of a true artist. My grandma tried to encourage my mom to go to art school, but it was during the depression and my mom thought the money would be better spent elsewhere. I surely wish she had followed her dream. She was very creative. Thank you so much for sharing this intimate part of your life with us.

  12. Amazing photos and amazing post. I was raised by a mother who was in art school and have had a deep love and appreciation of art. My cancer journey keeps tempting me to dust off my nice digital camera, now I feel like that is just what inam going to have to do!

  13. Your work is amazing!
    And I get the artist thing because that’s what I do for a living and have my whole life. Maybe I’ll see you at RISD… I keep going back for more classes.

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